We might begin by taking a look at the surname itself. For purposes of this volume, the basic form of the surname is presented as Muirhead. But throughout history and among the various families who claim descent from the ancient root, the name has variously appeared as: Moirheid, Moorehead, Moorhead, Mored, Morehead, Morheid, Mourheid, Muirhed, Muirheid, Muirheyd, Murehed, Murehede, Mureheide, Murhed, Murhede, Murheed, Murheid, Muyrheid, Mwirheid, Mwreheid, Mwrhed, Mwrheid, Mwrheyd and Mwrhied.
The etymology and history of the surname, regardless of its form is, at once, simple and difficult. Unlike a surname such as Smith, the origin of which can readily be discovered to have been derived from the occupation of the blacksmith, the surname Muirhead is not so easy.
It is generally agreed that the family took its appellation from the land, there being a number of places named Muirhead.(1.7) There is the hamlet of Muirhead in the parish of Kettle, district of Cupar, in the county or shire of Fife. There is also a hamlet of Muirhead in the parish of Liff, Benvie and Invergowrie in the county or shire of Forfar. There is also a village of Muirhead in the parish of Cadder in the northern tip of the county or shire of Lanark. It is in the vicinity of the latter village that this family is believed to have originated.
According to George F. Black, in his awesome work, The Surnames Of Scotland - Their Origin, Meaning, And History:(1.8) "the use of fixed surnames or descriptive names appears to have commenced in France about the year 1000, and such names were introduced into Scotland through the Normans a little over one hundred years later..." Black noted that "The first people in Scotland to acquire fixed surnames were the nobles and great landowners, who called themselves, or were called by others, after the lands they possessed." Such ‘territorial’ surnames might be acquired by more than one root family not necessarily related by bloodline. Black also warned the researcher to be aware that the use of the preposition de, when used in conjunction with the territorial surname did not always imply that the individual possessed the lands from which he acquired the surname. It might imply the concept of ‘in’ rather than of ‘of’. Therefore, going simply by the name, the Willielmo de Muirhead named in the 1393 deed cited above, might either have been the possessor of the lands of Muirhead, or simply an inhabitant ‘in’ those lands. Black did concede, though, that in most cases the former situation was the one that should be considered. And we shall see that that indeed was the case here.
But the question that must next be asked is, where did the place name come from? Most of the historians of the family of Muirhead cite the similarities of the word muir with the Scots word that means a ‘heath’: moor. The word moor is derived from the root mer referring to ‘dead’; and therefore refers to dead or barren ground. They then add the word head, which refers to the ‘highest point’, to the first, to arrive at muir-head or rather "head of the moor", or "the highest point on the heath."(1.9) Apparently, this reference to the meaning of the name was first introduced by John M. Morehead in his book, The Morehead Family Of North Carolina And Virginia, published in 1921. In that book, Mr. Morehead noted:(1.10)
"In Both Scotland and England uncultivated shooting tracts of country were well known and have borne from earliest times the name now known as ‘moor’. Its earliest spelling, according to A New English Dictionary (Murray) was ‘mor’ and it had various other forms: ‘more’, ‘moore’, ‘moor’, ‘muir’ and ‘mure’. The ‘head’ of these tracts must have been not uncommon in the two countries, and as a location, it has become a fixed one, in at least two places in the general region of Stirling Castle near Glasgow, under the name of ‘Muirhead’."
This seems, at first glance, to be a fairly good assumption of the origin of the name Muirhead, but one must take into consideration the influences of the gaelic language on the naming of places in early Scotland, and also the fact that the Normans brought with them their own language, which merged with the native tongues.
In regard to the assumption that the gaelic language might have played a part in the creation of the place name of Muirhead, reference is made to the book Scotland In The Middle Ages, by Innes, in which it is stated that:(1.11)
"By the middle of the twelfth century it is certain that with the exception of Galloway the inhabitants of the southern counties of Scotland were practically English in speech, whatever may have been their proportion of Celtic blood. The Gaelic place names in the Lowlands prove that a people speaking Gaelic formerly possessed the territory but is not evidence as to the continued existence of the Gaelic race there."
What this tells us is that we should proceed cautiously when attempting to determine the cultural and ethnic origin of a place name, such as Muirhead. A purely Gaelic place name would very well have been retained by the later inhabitants, regardless of their own native language and/or naming conventions.
The word muir exists in the gaelic language as a dual masculine/feminine noun. It refers to the ‘sea’ and not to a heath or moor, as has been suggested solely because of its similarity in sound. One needs only take a quick glance at a map of Scotland, and it will be seen that the sea and its many inroads into the valleys of Scotland might have influenced the use of the word muir in the place name. The Irish word for sea (no doubt derived from the gaelic) is muir; the Welsh word for sea is mor. The Breton and also the Gaulish words for sea are also spelled mor. The only problem with assuming that muir, the gaelic word for ‘sea’ provided the origin of the first half of the name is that the second half is not gaelic. There exists no correlating gaelic word for that which reads and sounds as the English word: head. If the intention had been to invent a place name from the gaelic words for ‘head of the sea’, it would not have resulted in muirhead, but rather muirceann.
It is interesting to note that there was, in the 18th Century (and possibly prior to that time), a conjoined word, moors-head, which was a term borrowed from chemistry, that referred to a cap, or head, set atop a still, and having a pipe or nose attached to allow the raised spirits to run down into a receiver.(1.12) In view of the history of whisky production in Scotland, perhaps the place name from which the family took its name may have had some relation to this definition.This example is included primarily for the humor in it, rather than as a serious attempt to explain the origin of the name; but it points out the fact that the name could have been derived from any number of things.
There is a gaelic name that might be a candidate for the root of the placename of Muirhead. Mhuir Mheadhain is the gaelic name for the Mediterranean Sea. There is the possibility that the Normans brought their name for the Mediterranean Sea with them. Perhaps it became merged with the gaelic to form the gaelic name M(h)uir (M)head(hain), the pronounciation of which became shortenned over time to Muir-head.
There is yet another, more compelling possibility for the origin of the name. There is a gaelic word that is spelled very similar to the spelling of muirhead; it is the name for a fishing spear: muirgheadh. Given that the people of the Isles are, and have always been, very cognizant of their dependence on the sea that surrounds them and the many rivers that crisscross the land, it would not be too unusual to use words culled from the sea or seafaring for placenames. Bishop Andrew Muirhead affixed a representation of his heraldic arms to the northside of the Nave of the Cathedral of Glasgow (which he adorned during his tenure as Bishop) which consisted primarily of the accepted heraldic devices of the Murihead family: three acorns on a bend; but it also included the image of salmon fishing. If it is accepted that the placename of Muirhead was derived from the gaelic name for a fishing spear, then it seems only natural that the image of salmon fishing (which was anciently performed with a spear, as compared to a line and hook) would be perfect symbolism to represent the surname of Muirhead. Alexander Nisbet noted that at the time his book, A System Of Heraldry, was published in 1742, the arms of Bishop Muirhead were still extant in the Nave of the Cathedral, and that the imagery was:(1.13)
"his coat of arms, the accorns on the bend, ƒurmounted of the ƒalmon fiƒhing, the cogniƒance of the epiƒcopal See..."
What this means is that the image of salmon fishing was the allegorical symbol of the Glasgow Episcopal See. For the very reason that an early Christian symbol was that of fish and fishing, this might be the most promising of the various conjectures about the name. It is possible that the image was chosen by Bishop Muirhead for the pun that it represented: a symbol of both his own surname and of the See that he represented as bishop.
In the Medieval Ages, and on into the Renaissance, artists, primarily engaged by the Church, utilized symbolism (i.e. allegory) extensively so that the viewer would not need to read much into the imagery. The masses of people were illiterate, and the allegorical images provided an easy method for the communication of ideas and concepts. Today, artists are taught the symbolism of the art elements. If an artist wants to show movement, he/she simply uses a diagonal line. By using a diagonal line in an artwork, the viewer will not need to actually ‘read’ the artwork, but will instinctively ‘know’ what the artist’s intention is - to imply movement. The allegorical images of the Medieval and Renaissance periods functioned much in the same way. It is very possible that Bishop Andrew ‘knew’ that anyone who looked at his arms, seeing them above the symbol of salmon fishing, the fishing spear (or muirgheadh) would immediately know that the arms represented the surname Muirhead. The viewer would instinctively know that the Gaelic word for 'fishing spear' sounded like his acquired surname, and make the connection.
It should be noted also, that the word muirghead is the one word that would have changed the least from its original form to become muirhead. The question of why gaelic, Norman or English words were joined together becomes an insignificant point. The ideas of mixing words derived from Gaelic and English and Gaelic and Norman French and so forth are plausible, but in this case there is no mixing of languages. The meaning is evident, and the use of the word as a visual pun to refer to both Bishop Andrew's profession and his family name is something that does not require any thought.
One additional thing in regard to the word muirgheadh needs to be noted: If we assume that this was the case - that the village of Muirhead in Lanarkshire derived its name from the Gaelic word for ‘fishing spear’, it is not in conflict with any of the other places named similarly. Salmon is the one type of fish that is easily caught by spearing them - rather than hooking them with a line, and there are many rivers in Scotland that would support salmon. Perhaps the various places named Muirhead or any variation of spelling, might have been named that way so that travellers knew that salmon fishing was the prevalent form of game at that place. If the name for fishing or ‘things of the sea’ was more suitable, than the word Muir was simply used.
The fact of the matter is that there exists no definitive answer to the question of how the name Muirhead came to be used to identify a number of villages and later a family. In the end, it simply must be accepted that the surname is a territorial name derived from the lands called Muirhead. The name itself does not necessarily hold any special distinction or meaning to the family other than that its pre-16th Century progenitor(s) was/were known as "of Muirhead".